One year after 9-year-old Janessa Ramirez was killed by a stray bullet in a Fresno gang gunfight, details of her tragic death were revealed for the first time Thursday in Fresno County Superior Court at the start of a preliminary hearing for her accused killer, 23-year-old Brian Cooks.
The testimony was so sad that members of Janessa’s family cried in court.
Fresno police Detective Antonio Rivera said Janessa was standing outside a laundromat at Marks and Clinton avenues when she was shot at 8:40 p.m. Jan. 18, 2015. Police know the exact time because a store video surveillance camera with a time-stamp feature captured the moment she collapsed in front of her mother and two family friends, Rivera said.
Police Officer Natalie Montoya testified that Janessa was on her side but still alive, talking to her mother. Montoya said she rushed to Janessa’s side with a first-aid kit. She said Janessa’s mother had already put a towel over the girl’s wound.
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Montoya said Janessa was shot once in the left side of her abdomen. The officer testified she noticed another bullet in the girl’s back.
Rivera would later reveal that a bullet had gone though Vanessa’s body. That bullet would turn out to be one of the big breaks in the case that would link Cooks to the killing.
The hearing in Judge Arlan Harrell’s courtroom will determine if there is enough evidence to order Cooks to stand trial. If convicted of murder, he faces life in prison.
The case, however, is not clear-cut, said defense attorney Curtis Sok.
Cooks, who is in Fresno County Jail, has pleaded not guilty and Sok has hinted he is a preparing a self-defense case. Some of the testimony presented at the hearing helps Sok’s theory of the shooting.
The killing of Janessa sent shock waves throughout the city, prompting Police Chief Jerry Dyer to dispatch 40 detectives who worked around the clock until it was solved. After nearly two weeks of investigation, the 1,600-hour effort led to the arrests of Cooks and Isaac Stafford, then 19, on murder charges.
At a news conference to announce the arrests, Dyer said Cooks and Stafford were intent on settling an old feud with guns as they confronted each other on Marks Avenue. A stray bullet stuck Janessa, who was more than 200 yards away.
Dyer said compassion shown by Janessa’s mother, Stacey Gonzales, played the key part in solving the case. “When our detectives told Brian Cooks, ‘Janessa’s mother has forgiven you,’ he broke,” Dyer said. “And then he began to tell the truth (about firing the fatal shot). Forgiveness is powerful.”
On Friday, on the second day of the preliminary hearing, the public will finally get to hear Cooks’ alleged confession. They will also hear from a expert about Cooks’ reported affiliation with the Modoc street gang.
Court records say Stafford and Donte Hawkins, who was also suspected in Janessa’s killing, were never charged with her murder. Hawkins, 22, is in Fresno County Jail, awaiting trial in a different attempted murder case.
Thursday, Janessa’s family showed up in court wearing purple T-shirts that said, “Justice for Janessa.” Cooks’ family sat on the other side of the aisle.
Prosecutor William Terrence contends that Cooks was riding a skateboard north on Marks when he crossed paths with Stafford and his friends, who were traveling south on Marks in a Dodge Challenger.
Gunfire erupted outside the Ross Gardens Apartments.
Four rounds hit a red Monte Carlo that supposedly shielded Cooks. Cooks is accused of firing one round toward the speeding car before the gun jammed. That bullet flew about 270 yards and hit Janessa. She died a short time later at Community Regional Medical Center.
After the shooting, crime-scene technician Patty Valdez testified that four “380 auto” shell casings were found in the street near the Monte Carlo. She also found a deformed bullet.
Rivera testified that police received a tip from a woman who overheard relatives say that Cooks and Stafford were involved in the girl’s slaying. Police started searching for both men and found Cooks at a Jack in the Box restaurant on Blackstone Avenue near Radcliffe Stadium on Jan. 28. Cooks was with Devonta Murphy, 23. After the two men left the fast-food restaurant, undercover police officers followed them to Vassar Avenue, where they were arrested at gunpoint, Sgt. Justin Hoagland testified.
Murphy had a Glock pistol in his waistband, Hoagland testified. The gun was sent to the California Department of Justice lab to be tested to see if it could be matched to the four shell casings in the street and to the bullet near Janessa’s body.
DOJ firearms expert Jessica Winn testified that the Glock could have fired the bullet that killed Janessa, but that there weren’t enough markings on the slug to say so conclusively. But she was clear that the Glock didn’t fire the bullets that left the shell casings on the street near the Monte Carlo.
Court records say Murphy, who was arrested with Cooks, pleaded no contest in February last year to felony possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison. Stafford isn’t expected to testify in the preliminary hearing, leaving Cooks’ statement to police to explain how Janessa was killed.